Story: Don, Frances May

Page 1 - Biography

Don, Frances May

1898–1965

Factory inspector, political activist, welfare worker

This biography was written by Melanie Nolan and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Frances May Labes was born in Castle Street, Dunedin, on 24 October 1898. Her mother, Maria (Mary) Louisa Labes, was of Prussian and Scottish descent, and her father was probably Harry Freeman, a carpenter. In 1901 Mary, then a domestic servant, married William Simpson McArthur, a marine fireman. Little is known of May’s early life, but on 22 July 1924, using the name Freeman, she married Hugh Don, a clerk, in Wellington. A daughter was born in 1925, but the couple appear to have separated soon after.

In the early 1930s May Don became a leading member of the South Dunedin branch of the New Zealand Labour Party and the Otago Labour Representation Committee. She shifted to Wellington to take up a temporary position in the Department of Labour as female factory inspector in August 1936. A year later she became a permanent staff member. Before the Second World War Don was the only female factory inspector in Wellington and one of only five in New Zealand. Her work, which involved visiting factories, shops and offices to check whether workers’ conditions met the minimum legal standards, was of particular importance during the war, when up to a third of all factory workers were women.

Soon after her arrival in Wellington, Don became active in the local Labour Representation Committee, and was eventually elected vice president. In the late 1930s she was involved in the Elizabeth McCombs Club, which was formed in 1936 to promote women’s participation in public life. She was prominent at a gathering of about 60 labour women organised by the club in April 1938, and was appointed to two subsequent deputations to government. She joined Catherine Stewart and Mary Bentley on a delegation to the minister of justice, H. G. R. Mason, to argue that court cases involving domestic matters and sex crimes should not be open to the public.

Don was also part of the nine-woman deputation which met the minister of labour, H. T. Armstrong, to protest at the exclusion of domestic servants from industrial arbitration legislation. They demanded regulation of the occupation through a separate act and unsuccessfully asked the government to set up a committee to examine the issue. Like many other women at the time, Don wanted the state to pay for domestic servants’ training, and she considered that the government’s Home Aid Service, established in 1945, was a pale reflection of what she and others had sought. She also became active in her union’s affairs, serving as a Wellington district representative for the New Zealand Public Service Association in the late 1940s.

During the war May Don was secretary of the dominion central executive of the Women’s War Service Auxiliary. She also began her long association with the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW). In 1943, concerned about the lower wages women in paid employment were receiving compared to male workers, the council contacted Don, as a factory inspector, to discuss industrial awards. At the same time it asked the minister of industrial manpower, Angus McLagan, to co-opt women factory inspectors onto the Industrial Man-power Appeal Committees. Don, who joined the NCW as an associate member representing the Public Opinion Group, highlighted the lack of consideration given to the rehabilitation of women and girls manpowered into essential industries, and was responsible for the establishment of an NCW sub-committee on the issue. After the war she was a staunch supporter of the campaigns for equal pay.

Don served on the executive of the NCW from 1947 to 1952, during which time she took a particular interest in housing. She chaired its housing sub-committee in the late 1940s and was later a member of the Wellington Housing Allocation Committee of the State Advances Corporation. She remained an active member of the NCW until at least 1960. She had joined the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Crippled Children Society in 1941 and was an executive committee member until her death in 1965. She also chaired the society’s local welfare committee, which provided funds and other assistance for handicapped children and their families; for example, paying physiotherapy fees and arranging transport.

Don retired as a factory inspector in January 1960, after 24 years’ service, and in December that year was appointed a justice of the peace. She died of breast cancer in Wellington on 22 July 1965; she was survived by her daughter. May Don was typical of early female factory inspectors, most of whom came from labour backgrounds and were active in welfare work beyond the confines of their public service employment.